January 21, 2021 Subject:
The cinema in its infancy
The title might suggest a nostalgic longing for the age of innocence we think we’re looking at in those early silent films. But if there was ever an age of innocence, it certainly wasn’t that one, as film historians have revealed at length. And this memoir by D.W. Griffith’s wife, Linda Arvidson, is written with affection but without undue sentimentality.
It’s true that she looks back almost with disbelief at the time when the penny-arcade ‘flickers’ evolved into the film as we know it, when the young industry was conducted behind a few doorways on East 14th Street, with actors walking in unchallenged and wardrobe-baskets piled up on the stairs. And it is fun to watch the arrival of the unknown Goldwyn and DeMille, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.
Not that actresses had names at that time, because the producers did not want to encourage a star-system, least of all Griffith, who held out longest, even as the fan-mail poured in, demanding to know their identities.
A one-reeler (15 minutes) was assumed to be all that the public could be expected to watch, but Griffith was the one to challenge that, soon offering them an incredible 5-reeler at two dollars a seat, instead of the usual ten cents. You may guess that this was ‘The Birth of a Nation’, on which the book closes, rather disappointingly, without telling us anything about the story of the production.
Meanwhile, her version of the discovery of Hollywood is just one of many, suggesting that something is being hidden. Is it true that Griffith and Mack Sennett had been warned to get out of New York, as they were liable for arrest for too much under-age mischief? And why did so many actresses who had worked for Sennett deny so emphatically that they had ever been one of his Bathing Belles? An age of innocence it was not.
May 2, 2017 Subject:
When the Movies were Innocent
A well written and engaging book. However, it appears the author was wearing rose tinted glasses when she wrote the script. Yes, there is some good information here, but she skirts around subjects she does not want us to know too much about. On the character of her former husband, D.W. Griffith, she leaves us to read between the lines and form our own opinion. She hints at 'The Great Director' violent temper and indicates that he found the young actresses, well, interesting. Some of her facts are plainly wrong, such as her contention that Mary Pickford was not on Biograph's second LA trip. One wonders how she made films there if she was somewhere else. Of course, it transpires that Mrs Griffith left Biograph in 1911, so anything that occurred after that date is recorded third hand. The book was written during a dark period for Hollywood, when the movie-makers were considered so delinquent that they should be packed off to New York, where the authorities could keep a watchful eye on them. Hence Mrs Griffith is trying to portray the movie industry as a place of innocence, or at least that its origins were innocent.